Love and magic realism in a haunted rental in Theater J’s ‘The Hatmaker’s Wife’

When a young couple move in together, a gloomy tale of prior tenants unspools.

How many times have we heard the phrase “if these walls could talk”? Well, in Lauren Yee’s play The Hatmaker’s Wife, the Wall not only speaks; it rains down pages of text, detailing a story that’s far from pretty. Whether audience members at DC’s Theater J, in a last-of-season production directed by Dan Rothenberg, buy this conceit or not depends on their capacity for whimsy seasoned generously with magic realism.

Yee’s quirky tale concerns a nervous young couple just moving into their first shared home, a wretched suburban rental fully furnished with the owners’ collection of junk. Almost immediately, the living room wall begins to speak, spooking the female tenant and drawing her away from her partner into the lives of the previous owners, Hetchman (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) and his long-suffering wife (Sue Jin Song). Past and present dwell uneasily together as the young tenant (Ashley D. Nguyen), identified only as Voice, grabs at the cascading pages that chronicle the Hetchmans’ tale. Her frustrated boyfriend Gabe (Tyler Herman) can neither sense nor hear what’s agitating his partner. Yet all around them, the Hetchmans’ gloomy past unspools anew.

Tyler Herman as Gabe and Ashley D. Nguyen as Voice in ‘The Hatmaker’s Wife.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Retired from his work as the town’s top hatmaker, Hetchman sits like a lump in a wretched easy chair that occupies center stage. He munches on junk food and yanks anything he needs, from Kleenexes to the TV remote, with the help of mechanical grabbers.

After a lifetime of subservience, Hetchman’s wife silently leaves him, carrying with her his most beloved possession — a beautiful hat that he has made and wears all the time. He barely notices her absence until his neighbor and friend Meckel (Michael Russotto) points out that both the wife and the hat have disappeared at the same time. When the bereaved widower Meckel suggests that Hetchman write to her, the extent of Hetchman’s neglect becomes apparent — he cannot remember her given name. She is simply Hetchman’s wife.

Will the wife return with the beloved fedora? How can a lifetime of wrongdoing be reconciled? The Voice reads on, hungrily devouring the dropped pages as well as the Wall’s (Alex Tatarsky) enigmatic pronouncements.

Pamela Weiner’s funky, creative props animate the story. A swaddled infant drops in and out from above, each up and down movement serving as a barometer of love expressed or withheld by Hetchman as he works on his hats. Clearly he can’t make emotional room for both. Glowing jars, hauled in by an unexpected guest, contain secrets and memories tinged with regret. Scenic designer Misha Kachman’s junk-strewn set echoes Hetchman’s wretched mental state. Despite the clutter, however, the play doesn’t settle into any particular decade.

Sue Jin Song as Hetchman’s Wife, Ashley D. Nguyen as the Voice, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Hetchman in ‘The Hatmaker’s Wife.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Costume designer Ivania Stack dresses Hetchman’s wife in long skirts and a light green duster redolent of the 1920s while Meckel’s gaudy garb is straight out of Miami of the 1950s. Meckel’s and the Hetchmans’ Yiddish-accented English mark them as Eastern European Jewish immigrants and Hetchman has mastered a long-gone trade, but he now sits in his easy chair scrounging for Cheetos and aiming his remote. Depending on one’s tolerance for ambiguity, such anachronisms will seem either charmingly vague or somewhat annoying.

At its best, The Hatmaker’s Wife is a tale of love, and lack thereof. It reminds us that emotions, tenaciously bottled up, wither the bonds that give our lives meaning. No hat, however exquisitely made, can protect its wearer from the need for meaningful human connection.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

The Hatmaker’s Wife plays through June 25, 2024, presented by Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($50–$70, with member and military discounts available) online, by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210, or by email ([email protected]).

The program for The Hatmaker’s Wife is online here


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